The Fault in Our Stars

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Hazel and Gus lie on grass, their faces touching, with the caption Today’s sermon is inspired by a movie – it’s called The Fault in Our Stars. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s a love story about a boy and a girl, who meet in a support group for cancer survivors. Being a love story, it’s not much of a spoiler if I tell you that Hazel and Gus fall in love. Nor would it surprise you to learn that they end up making love together.

I enjoyed the movie, but one thing left me downcast. I walked out of the cinema knowing that if one more thing had been added to the plot, it would have been a truly heartwarming movie I would have gladly awarded five stars. What was missing? Imagine that Hazel and Gus had called in a chaplain to celebrate a bedside marriage, followed by a discreetly filmed love scene. Then it would have been a beautiful love story we could celebrate without reservation… but it’s a sign of our times is that the climax is simply that they climb into bed together.

“Put an end to the misdeeds of body!” St Paul, in today’s Second Reading, calls us to a high standard of integrity. He is echoing the teachings of Our Lord himself, who warned us many times against giving in to lust. This is a message we don’t hear often – indeed, it’s one I don’t often preach about myself – but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Today, I want to remind us all of the standards to which we are called – that making love belongs in marriage alone.

We need to be reminded of this message, because the world we live in keeps pulling us away from it. There are very few movies or television series today where characters insist on being married before jumping into bed together. A story about divorce always bears the sadness of a broken relationship, and adultery always means a promise has been broken – but perhaps we also see these on screen so often they begin to feel normal.

Our stars of television, stage and screen do not set us a great example away from the camera, either. We look to famous people to inspire us, but under the intense pressure of the media’s gaze and a wealthy lifestyle, half of all celebrity couples divorce before they have been together for 15 years – that’s twice the divorce rate of the rest of the population. Drew Barrymore, Eminem, and Britney Spears didn’t even make it to their first wedding anniversaries. Perhaps we should be thankful that we are not cursed with such fame or such wealth!

The truth is, that even in today’s world, marriage is important. Couples who get married before they start living together or having children are most likely to have a stable relationship. Couples already living together who eventually get married also have some advantage over those who never make their relationship official – this is based on solid research on couples in the UK by a think tank called the Marriage Foundation. Getting married doesn’t need to be expensive – we don’t have to follow the trend for ever-more-lavish parties – and I’ve even heard of churches who pull together to put on a reception so that poor members who feel they can’t afford a wedding can tie the knot.

I know I am preaching to the converted because most if not all of you at Mass today who are in stable relationships are already married – though perhaps I should remind you that if a Catholic gets married without the church’s blessing, your civil marriage is not recognised by the Church. If that applies to you, don’t panic – come and see me so I can arrange a blessing for you.

The reason I’m talking about this today is that we have a major task on our hands – we must correct the fault in our stars. When our stars of stage and screen set a poor example on or off-stage, we must not remain silent. We have a duty to remind our children and our wider families that as God’s children, we are held to a higher standard. In today’s world, this attitude might be seen as naive. But doesn’t Jesus today bless those who are child-like and dismiss those who try to be “adult”? Let’s hold on to our childish romances, then, where a handsome prince sweeps up his virgin queen and celebrates a royal wedding! The Bible itself uses the same romance to speak of God’s love for Zion, symbol of ancient Israel and the Church herself.

Parents, I’m challenging you today to talk to your children about the kind of relationships they see portrayed in movies and on television. We can’t hide from the world we live in – we have to respond to it. Don’t stop older children watching what other people are watching, but ask hard questions. What are the consequences of free relationships? When do relationships become oppressive power games? You might find it helpful to check out the movie reviews commissioned by the United States Bishops, readily available online, which pick out the morals highs and lows.

If we try to ban our older children from watching everyday material, we’ll eventually fail. But what we can do is to recommend positive examples for them to watch or read alongside the more worldly fare. I’ve asked friends who are parents to four children to share with me the books and movies they would recommend, and you’ll find their list in this week’s newsletter (and at the bottom of this page).

The issue is this: we live in a world where our celebrities portrays as “normal” and even “good” kinds of relationships which are against God’s Law. We are temped to compromise our values, but on this matter, we must put an end to the misdeeds of the body. We are called to promote the childlike innocence of Christians, not the serpentine wisdom of the world around us. So do not adjust your sex! There is a fault in our stars!


Some book links from my friends:

There is a link on this website to the booklist we discussed and there is also a podcast worth listening to. It is called Season 10 RAR Bonus episode (some of the best books by living authors)

Clink on the link for bookishness, go to book lists

Episode 48, age appropriateness

 

Film recommendations

Here is a list of films that have been released in the last 5 years and I consider to be of high quality, have something positive to contribute to the culture and are not (at the very least significantly) saying anything contrary to our faith.

 

Up to age 14

(U or PG films, nothing to cause problems content-wise)

  • The Jungle Book
  • The BFG
  • Moana
  • Inside Out
  • The Lego Movie
  • Boxtrolls
  • Big Hero 6
  • Paddington

Age 14+

(these are all rated 12 (or less), but I think are better suited to 14+ as there will often be some swearing, violence, intensity and/or sexual references which I wouldn’t consider suitable to younger children, however it very much depends on the child. Sometimes for me it’s not just about specific content but what the film is about and what age will best appreciate the story)

  • Marvel Avengers films: series of 15 (and rising) interconnected films starting with Iron Man (2008) and most recently Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017). The stories are overall very positive, good vs evil, protecting the innocent, doing the right thing, friendship, loyalty etc. lots of action, jokes and a cleverly unfolding larger narrative. All have mild bad language and some have intense scenes and occasional sexual reference. Not to be confused with the other Marvel franchise, the X-Men which although 12 rated has more violence and overall lower quality
  • Star Wars films: Everyone knows these! The most recent ones are 12 rated but are mild, with no bad language or sex references, rating for intensity only
  • Arrival (2016): Brilliant sci-fi about an alien arrival with a pro-life undercurrent, intense scenes of bereavement and occasional bad language
  • A Monster Calls (2016): Powerful film about a boy coping with the imminent death of his mother. There is a lot of fantasy adventure in-between and the film emphasises the wonder of life and how trials can bring family together
  • The Hunger Games (4 films 2012-2015): Slightly controversial as at the end of the first film the characters seem to choose suicide as a valid option (although it doesn’t actually happen) but I don’t believe the film endorses this choice, and while there is some intense action and violence, the films have a strong lead character who stands up to tyranny and dictatorship and the series ends on a positive pro-family note
  • Suffragette (2016): Fictional drama about the suffragette movement, very strong message about the value of all individuals and fighting for what is right. Some mild bad language and an ongoing subplot about an abusive relationship
  • The Hobbit / Lord of the Rings films: Fabulous imaginings of Tolkien’s world. Hobbit films not as good as LOTR but still high quality. No bad language or sex references but many intense / frightening scenes
  • Edge of Tomorrow (2014): Action packed sci fi / alien invasion film about a cowardly soldier who is forced to face death many times and learn how to defeat earth’s enemy
  • Ender’s Game (2013): Low key but well-made sci fi about a boy being trained to lead a mission against an alien invasion, more intellectual than action orientated with some interesting ideas about who our enemies are
  • Saving Mr Banks (2013): Story of the making of Mary Poppins, great characters and lots of laughs, as well as positive emotional journey for the main character. Only rated PG but the backstory of an alcoholic father is a bit intense for youngsters
  • Gravity (2013): Stunning sci fi about a woman stranded in space, strong message of the value of life. Some bad language and intensity
  • Captain Phillips (2013): Gripping and moving true story about a cargo ship overtaken by pirates. Mild bad language and many intense / emotional scenes
  • All is Lost (2013): A sailor is stranded out at sea and tries to survive. Celebration of the resourcefulness and resilience of man. One incidence of strong language.
  • The Impossible (2012): Based on the true story of a family hit by the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand. Very emotionally powerful and positive about what family means. Very intense in the Tsunami scenes with some gruesome images.
  • Lincoln (2012): Story of Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to end slavery. Celebration of idealism and value of the individual. Brief strong language and war violence.
  • Les Miserables (2012): Musical of Victor Hugo’s novel. Very strong affirmation of the value of people, full of rousing songs, emotional uplift and positive Catholic characters. Some bleak situations, sexual references and revolutionary violence.

Holy Matrimony

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Two wedding rings around a gold crossThere’s a story about a traveller lost in the Irish countryside, who pulls up alongside a farmer and asks the way to Tipperary. “Ah,” says the farmer, “If I were trying to go to Tipperary, I wouldn’t be starting from here!”

The Gospel we’ve just heard touches on the sensitive and often painful subject of divorce. It’s a reality we can’t avoid in Church, because it’s a subject Jesus didn’t avoid in his preaching and teaching. Even the language our Lord chose is challenging – “anyone who divorces one partner and marries another is guilty of adultery”. Why would Jesus teach such a thing? To understand this, we have to understand the big picture of Christian Marriage, and I want to address my words today especially to those teenagers and young adults among us – you who are not yet married but are considering your future. If you are not such a person, then I offer you these words as wisdom for you to pass on to the young people in your lives. But before I offer you this advice – my “Directions to Tipperary” – I should first speak to those among us who wish they were not starting from here.

Many among us will have known the pain of a failed relationship. I want to remind you that simply being divorced against your will, or even agreeing to a divorce to settle the finances of a past relationship, is not in itself a sin. A Catholic who is merely divorced is not automatically barred from Holy Communion. As for a Catholic who enters a new civil marriage without the Church annulling their previous marriage, I have no power to soften the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, but I do echo the words of recent Popes who thank you for your faithfulness to attending Mass while refraining from receiving Holy Communion. Pope Francis has recently acted to make it simpler to pursue an annulment, and I am always willing to make an appointment to speak to anyone who wants to discuss their marital situation. Perhaps the Bishops meeting in Rome this month will find further ways to extend the mercy of Christ, but whatever the Church does will have to honour the very difficult teaching present in today’s Gospel.

And now, my message for our young people.

My dear young friends, have no doubt that God loves each one of you and has a plan for your life. Most of you will be called by God to enter a state of Holy Matrimony. And I use such old fashioned language rather than the word “Marriage” because what the Church calls “Marriage” and what the society around us now calls “Marriage” are two very different things. I want to share with you today, God’s vision for Holy Matrimony.

How would you like to have one person in your life whose top priority was your well-being? Someone who would always be loyal to you, no matter how you offend them? Someone who would work to help you in good times and in bad? Someone who would always tell you that you are loved and cherished, even when tired or distracted? Someone who will forgive you and take you back however you might fail them?

God would like you to have such a partner in life. But there’s a catch. For you to have someone like that as a partner, you must be that partner to someone. And that’s quite demanding!

What sort of parents would you like to have? Two who would always work hard to make up a quarrel as soon as possible? Two who always pull together, not apart? Two who never force you to choose between them?

Once again, do unto others as you would have them do unto you – if you want to have such a parent, you must be such a parent.

I can’t imagine a child wanting their parents’ relationship to fail rather than be healed. I can imagine a person wishing to try a series of different relationships rather than enjoy the blessings and challenges which come with an exclusive partnership. But serial relationships come with a price. You know how a piece of sellotape loses its sticking power if you use it two or three times? In the same way, the more relationships you allow to reach a very intimate level, the less depth and freshness each one will have.

When Jesus read the Book of Genesis, he saw in it a clear message from God-the-Father that God’s plan was for a man and a woman together to become one flesh, and to form a family unit, a unit which no earthly power should dare to divide.

If what Jesus teaches is true, it has serious consequences.

We’re not free to define marriage as we see fit. Holy Matrimony can only exist between a man and a woman.

We’re not free to declare that a marriage has ended. Holy Matrimony is founded on a pledge to be faithful until death, in sickness, poverty, and ‘for worse’. Each partner in Holy Matrimony has promised, in advance, to be faithful to their spouse even if that spouse should fall into a 20-year coma or run off and abandon them.

Nor should we try before marriage anything we should keep as a gift to our partner on our wedding night. Jesus doesn’t speak about that in today’s Gospel, but he does warn us to avoid lust, and St Paul writes at greater length about the kind of purity which is expected of Jesus’ followers.

“Wait a minute, God, what business is it of yours? It’s my body, after all.”

Actually, no. St Paul says that if we are Christians, our bodies belong to the Lord and we must use our bodies to give glory to God. Today’s Second Reading reminds us that even Jesus Himself couldn’t avoid suffering when He was obedient to His Father’s Will. We are free to say that we don’t want to do God’s will. We are not free to pretend that God hasn’t made the laws which Jesus shows us in today’s Gospel – and the same God who made the laws knows better than any one of us the agonies which take place in the human heart when we’re drawn to any relationship outside those laws.

God loves us, and makes these laws for our own protection. Above all, God doesn’t want a single human being to be a tool used for someone else’s pleasure and then abandoned. St John Paul II wrote at length about how terrible it was for one human being to merely use another, part of the writings we now call the Theology of the Body.

So my dear young friends, God’s plan for you is that, unless you are called to the single life, you should enter a state of Holy Matrimony. This is not easy; it requires you to be a living sign of how faithful Jesus is to us – and the Lord will never abandon us in His Church, no matter how we might fail and sin. Be the committed partner you want your husband or wife to be for you. Be the loving parent who embodies the very best of what your parents are for you. Be a servant of God who follows God’s plan for Holy Matrimony, not your own – and God’s blessing will go with you always.

  • You can read my more extended reflection on Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality.
  • Lots of resources for Supporting Marriage are available online.
  • Thanks to Kaye Smith for first showing me the ‘sellotape’ analogy.